Early in the morning of April 9th, 2004 I led my platoon on an attack against an enemy held bridge in AL Kut, Iraq. In the first five minutes of the fight 9 of my soldiers plus myself were wounded and two of my scout platoon’s guntrucks were destroyed.
In the aftermath of the fight approx. 50% of my platoon was wounded and 30% of equipment was damaged. This was both an individual and organizational crucible event. A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity. (Crucibles of Leadership, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, September 2002 http://hbr.org/2002/09/crucibles-of-leadership/ar/2 ) For the sake of this blog post I will identify an organizational crucible event as a transformative experience through which an organization comes to a new or an altered sense of identity. The wording is similar to the definition of an individual crucible event.
Referring to the diagram below, my platoon was at the bottom of the divide. I knew that we had three choices:
1. Flat line (dotted line) , not be aggressive during mission execution, never take risks as a platoon when we resumed combat operations;
2. Continue the spiral downward ( Red spiral line);
3. Learn from the event, rebuild, grow and come out stronger on the other side.
I knew my job as an Army Officer and Scout Platoon Leader was to lead the platoon and rebuild them into a stronger team fully capable of conducting combat operations and accomplishing whatever mission was thrown our way.
In the definition I gave of a crucible event I mentioned a transformation of identity. The identity of the platoon at this point was of a battered team. Morale had hit a low point. Thankfully my soldiers who were wounded all recovered within two weeks and returned to the platoon. My injury was not fully diagnosed until after I returned from deployment. (you can read more about that here). As my soldiers returned and we received vehicles to replace the destroyed guntrucks we became mission capable.
At this point we were operating in the Najaf/Kufah area. The first few missions we received were reconnaissance-focused mission to identify enemy activity, not to directly engage enemy forces. The reconnaissance focus of the missions helped regain the platoons confidence and got several missions under our belt before we made contact again with enemy forces. Additionally before each mission we rehearsed actions on contact since there was a high risk of making contact even though our focus was reconnaissance. During the rehearsal there was some push back from some of the soldiers who had been wounded. It was obvious they were fearful of being under direct fire again. However I decided to not shy away from this. Training and rehearsal before these missions was critical to restoring the identify of the platoon to what it was before the April 9th fight.
In industry, leadership development is looked at as an employees experience on the job. There are not a lot of resources dedicated creating experiences for leaders to be developed. (PowerPoint presentations on leadership topics don’t really count as experiences in my world.Where is the assumption of identity? Role Play?) Some will have actual job-related developmental experiences and some will not. Different from industry, the military creates experiences for the purpose of creating experiences. Training and rehearsal are experiences where leaders and soldiers can execute actions they are required to do in real life situations. As a leader I don’t "HOPE” my unit can perform under fire. It is my job to create a training experience where they can rehearse being under fire. Whether they actually come under fire the next mission is irrelevant, they will be better prepared for a future mission where the risk of making contact is higher.
By creating these training and rehearsal experiences before we went out on each mission, my soldiers were able to practice the skills needed under fire in a safe environment and REGAIN CONFIDENCE in themselves, their equipment and most importantly in the platoon as a whole.
As I mentioned before the first few missions we executed after the April 9th fight were reconnaissance focused. As we got more missions under our belt the platoon gained confidence and I started to see an identity shift toward a team of warriors and away from the battered, injured, low-confidence team it had become after the fight on April 9th.
As the enemy situation changed we received missions that were more force oriented on the enemy to gain more information on enemy capability, competence, proficiency, etc... We were soon in direct fire contact with enemy forces and my soldiers performed brilliantly. It was clear the training and rehearsal experiences I had created had really paid off. We had the biggest fight of our deployment on the 28th of May. It lasted over four hours and was pretty up-close and personal. At one point a section was involved in hand-to hand combat with enemy forces. You can read about the fight in this WashingtonPost article. After this fight we were on the other side of the divide on the high ground performing better than we did before the April 9th fight. Leadership is a team sport and the platoon would never have been able to conquer the crucible if it were not for the superb Leadership of all leaders in the platoon.
As I reflect back on this event I continuously make new connections and gain new insights from this incredible experience. Leadership Counts and I am proud to have led this platoon.